PITTSBURGH – President Barack Obama’s speech this week on climate change forcefully rejected some key arguments made by opponents of natural gas fracking, upsetting some environmental groups that otherwise back his climate goals.
Obama, in his address Tuesday calling for urgent action to address climate change, praised what he called “cleaner-burning natural gas” and its role in providing safe, cheap power that he said can also help reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
Regulators in many states with heavy new drilling activity say fracking, a colloquial term for hydraulic fracturing, is being done safely and is essentially similar to the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells that have been drilled all over the nation.
The drilling boom has reduced oil and gas imports and generated billions of dollars for companies and landowners. Many scientists and environmental groups also agree with Obama’s main point: that while there are some negative effects from natural gas, burning coal is far worse for the environment and public health.
There’s no dispute that natural gas burns far cleaner than coal, but its main component, methane, is a potent heat-trapping gas.
Some environmental groups advocate a total rejection of all fossil fuels and an all-out effort to switch to renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels.
They also say people living close to drilling operations have suffered from too much pollution.
“When it comes to natural gas, the president is taking the wrong path,” Deb Nardone, the head of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas program, wrote in a blog post.
Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor who argues that methane leaks from drilling negate other climate benefits of gas, said in an email to The Associated Press that he is “extremely disappointed in the President’s position” and said the support for natural gas “is very likely to do more to aggravate global change than to help solve it.”
Not so, Obama said.
Advances in drilling, the president said, have “helped drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly 20 years,” and, “we’ll keep working with the industry to make drilling safer and cleaner, to make sure that we’re not seeing methane emissions.”
“These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can’t or they won’t do it,” Obama added, mentioning that taking lead out of gasoline and the phase-out of ozone-depleting gases were examples of the industry making needed changes.
The Sierra Club and some activists argue that fracking comes with unacceptable levels of air and water pollution and that “no state has adequate protections in place.”
“The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time,” Obama said.
“Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.”
Critics have also claimed that the fracking boom just makes a few energy companies rich, and that average Americans get few benefits.
But Obama responded, “The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs. It’s lowering many families’ heat and power bills.”
Some environmental groups agree with Obama’s position that switching from coal-fired power to natural gas has helped reduce emissions and protect the environment.
The Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, Calif., think tank, said in a report released Wednesday that despite problems and legitimate concerns over fracking, the gas industry has “a far smaller impact on mortality and disease, landscapes, waterways, air pollution, and local communities than coal mining and coal burning.”
“Natural gas is a net environmental benefit at local, regional, national, and global levels,” the Breakthrough report said.
One Pennsylvania Democrat jumped to endorse Obama’s plan. Gas from the Marcellus Shale formation there has led to a huge surge in drilling and production over the last five years.
Sen. Bob Casey said he plans to introduce legislation to place more natural gas fueling stations along Interstate highways. Casey said the plan could “help reduce emissions and create jobs.”
But some other Democrats were silent. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to decide whether to allow fracking to begin in a small part of his state and is facing heavy opposition from some groups.
Cuomo had no immediate comment Thursday about the speech but said his decision will be based on New York state’s own health report and data from Pennsylvania’s experience.
Industry groups welcomed Obama’s strong support for gas.
“We are pleased to see that President Obama’s climate action plan recognizes natural gas as a key component of America’s clean energy future,” Don Santa, the president the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said in a statement.
At the core of Obama’s plan are new controls on new and existing power plants that emit carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas blamed largely for global warming. Coal-fired power plants would be under the most pressure, since they emit far more pollution than ones that burn natural gas.
The program also will boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures. Obama called for the United States to be a global leader in the search for solutions to climate change.